Chapter 9

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[...I never left your side...]

Such a place, I have never seen – the Arbor Wilds. In the south of Orlais, this beautiful leafy forest spreads. Sunlight filters in dappled shades down through the thick foliage of great ancient trees. Here, the autumn has bestowed brilliant hues which put to shame the stained glassworks of the greatest Chantry towers. Instinctively, we slow. Even Iron Bull and his men fall silent.

"A far cry from Ferelden," the Inquisitor notes quietly. "Wait until you see the ruins."
"And the Temple," Varric adds. "Ancient Elven ruins..." The dwarf trails off with a shrug.
"What about them?" I ask.
"It just seems spooky. Spooky and sad."
"I can't disagree with you there," Lavellan nodded. "It's a sight that you can't forget easily. In its own way, it haunts you."

The mystery lingers, I muse as our horses wend a long line deeper into the forest. It reminds me of Anders in an odd melancholy way. A forgotten history. What we do not know - that is the shadow which hangs within the recesses of our memories. Not just of the ancient eras long past, but those things we do not know about each other.

Giant mossy boulders covered in brilliant deep hues of soft yellow-green rise up here and there. Ancient Elvish tombs. Broken chunks of sculpted stone jut out from the thick lush undergrowth of the forest. Yet, the air smells of damp and thunderstorms and decaying leaves.

"It is greener in the summer?" I find myself asking.
"Yes," Lavellan nods. "It is very colourful in the summer... The flowers. The trees. The grass."

The sound of water babbling cheerfully over stone draws close. In a few minutes, we ford a river, pass by a herd of wild rams, and continue onward and inward. Overhead, a few lone birds chirp shrilly.

"We are closing in," Varric murmured. "We'll be at the Temple by nightfall."
"Hopefully the ghosts won't disturb us," grunted Iron Bull. "Solas would have enjoyed it at nightfall, but I would prefer a warm tavern with a tankard of ale."
"Most of us would," Varric agreed. "Solas was different though."
"Solas?"
"An elf. Not Dalish as myself, but... perhaps..." Lavellan shook his head and then continued: "A companion of ours during the Inquisition. Long gone now."
"Where did he go?"
"I do not know." Lavellan sighed. "We know so little about each other despite our shared adversity. Perhaps it is impossible to know everything."
"Scary thought," Varric said, "but realistic."

Anders. Did I know you? It was hard to admit that to myself as I recalled the few years we had spent together.

We passed on, and as we forged deeper into the Arbor Wilds, more ruins cropped up. How large had this Elven settlement been? How great had been their palaces and towers? How grand had been their temples? I glanced over at the Inquisitor. He rode close by, but it was difficult to read the expression on his profile. His smooth clear brows, dark eyebrows, sculpted high cheekbones, straight nose, thin lips and strong chin have become familiar to me, but what lies beneath remains a mystery at times. Lavellan appears unmoved at the sight of his peoples' diminished power.

During our travels together, the Elf had proven himself to be a calm, yet strong leader. Quiet, respectful, yet tough as nails. I can see why he was chosen. I know I can ask him what he thinks about the past of his people for he seems more open. Like Meredith, Inquisitor Lavellan appears to be more objective about his people and their lost history. Their lost power.

After a short lunch beneath some trees overlooking a shadowy dale, we continue onward, pausing at times as Lavellan, Iron Bull, and Varric consult the Inquisitor's scouting map. Finally, we reach a small camp comprised of three Ferelden scouts, where news awaits. I hope.

"Inquisitor," a short female dwarf smiles up at him. She seems to know the Dalish Elf well. "Scout Harding reporting in!"
"Harding!" the Elf smiles. "It has been awhile."
"Yes. I have two letters for you," Harding hands over two slender parcels. "From the Council at Skyhold," she adds. "And news as well. There are stories of a blonde male with blue eyes passing through the area. Tall. Mage."
"Anders?" I ask, suddenly feeling a little breathless.
"Thanks to the Mage Rebellion... well," Harding sighs. "Let's just say that some people are less apt to deal kindly with mages. Or Templars for that matter. We won't talk about the Wardens either. Regular folk in less populated regions have had quite enough. So, when a stranger comes poking about, even the migrant populations take notice."
"You spoke with the Dalish tribes?"
"One was passing through. They mentioned a Fereldan mage." Harding glances at me and then adds, "But the farmers saw him on more than one occasion. Nothing of concern in the way of his conduct. Healed a young child of some kind of rash. Patched up a wound or two. Still, people are more cautious these days."
"Where was he seen last?" I ask.
"Headed into the Temple." Harding jerks her head to her right. "We met for a short time yesterday. Fairly civil exchange, but he kept his distance. I asked him his business in a roundabout way. He wouldn't answer out and out. Can't blame him. Mentioned something about research... but..."
"Thank you, Harding," Lavellan's smile is brief yet sincere. "You have helped us quite a bit. You always pull through for me."
"I do my best," the red-headed Dwarf salutes and turns away, allowing Iron Bull, Varric, Lavellan, and myself to gather in a loose circle.

The Inquisitor glances over at me. I say nothing, so he nods and begins.

"I have a plan."
"Oh good," Varric says. "Plans are nice. If they work."
"More like a search strategy," Lavellan amends.
"Let's hear it," Iron Bull grunts.
"You know the area," I remind them. "I am relying your knowledge fully."
"Iron Bull and three of his men can search the inner areas of the Temple. Krev and three others can search the outer edges of the Temple. Varric, you, and I can search the nearby Temple of Mythal."
"Why aren't we searching the Temple?" Varric's eyebrows rose. "I would have thought Blondie would be there."
"I have a hunch." The Inquisitor paused. "Regarding the Fade."
"Oh. Great. That's... That's great." Varric rubs his eyes. "You think Blondie is trying to get into the Fade?"
"Getting into the Fade is difficult. You need a gate or a door," I muse. "Or enchantments to open a breach... or relics..."
"We know all about those," Iron Bull grunts. "My men and I have no interest in going into some flim-flam Fade world. Just to let you know."
"We don't expect anyone to enter," Lavellan agrees quickly. "Varric is unable to enter regardless."
"I've always been fine with that," Varric nods. "Still," he points out, "Blondie might not have gotten in yet."
"I am thinking the same," Lavellan looks at me. "You and I must be prepared, either way. Varric will be handy if, er, Anders has not yet entered the Fade."
"Talking Blondie off a metaphorical cliff?" Varric guesses. "Nothing new there."
"This Altar is..."
"It is the Altar of Mythal. It is possible the entire Temple is dedicated to her – that or the Dread Wolf – or the pantheon of Elven Gods." Lavellan explains. "Is this a problem?"
"What is?"
"Entering an Elvish temple?"
"No," I roll my eyes. "I have been to many ancient ruins. Elvish look no different to me."
"It is a bit weirder when you meet Mythal," the Inquisitor says.
"I've met Mythal – or a woman who claimed she was Mythal."
"Oh yes," Varric nods. "Meredith. Sundermount. Ah. The good old days. She turned into a dragon, didn't she?"
"Yes." I look about the forest glade in which Iron Bull's men are now setting up camp. "Mythal is no ordinary mage... or person. You met her?"
Lavellan nods. "At the Altar. I believe the Fade there may press closer to the fabric of this world. Perhaps Anders will be there. We will begin the search at first light of dawn."
"Sounds good to me," Iron Bull nods. "We will be prepared."
"Or as prepared as we possibly can, considering we are in Elven ruins in a fairly remote location looking for our doom-and-gloom Blondie who may be trying to enter the Fade." Varric shakes his head and makes for his small horse and his pack.
"It will work out," promises Lavellan.

Our eyes meet. Such brilliant green eyes, like the leaves on the tree, yet I cannot understand what glimmers in their remote depths. I wonder what he sees in me. I wonder what he reads on my face – to make such a promise.

I turn away. I do not reply.

-0-0-0-

Next morning, we rose quietly, leaving the camp to the watchful care of the guards. As the Inquisitor had planned the night before, we split into three groups and disappeared into the thick autumn foliage of the Arbor Wilds. Thanks to the end of the war, rogues, cutthroats, rogue Mages, and rogue Templars were mainly cleared from the wilderness, but there were other stories of the silent Elven guards who watched over the Temple. Lavellan said they would not harm Iron Bull and his men, but no one was taking any chances. We all armed ourselves well before leaving the camp.

The Altar of Mythal was not far from the Temple, and before the sun had even fully risen, Lavellan guided Varric and I to a well-rounded glade.

I had thought the Arbor Wilds was a quiet place, but standing in that large oval of yellow-greens and reds and purples, I felt as though I had been plunged even deeper into a sea of silence. Here, no birds chirped. No small animals scuffled in the underbrush. No rams startled from grazing. No river babbled. No wind stirred the branches.

We stood at the entrance, impacted by the holy awe of the sacred place, and our gaze was immediately drawn to the Altar before which stood a cloaked figure whose hands rose on the end of a chant.

The silence broke, shattering like glass, as energy crackled and green fluid warped the air.

A door to the Fade.

The mage swung around, and my breath caught. Anders. I ran forward involuntarily and then stopped.

Beloved.

He was the same as always: blonde scruffy beard, thin face, clear blue eyes. So familiar.

And yet...

And yet...

Not.

Clear blue eyes filled with sapphire flame.

It was Justice.

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